Reviewed Books & Films

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nature, Nurture, and Violence

APA The film We Need to Talk About Kevin focuses on a mother coping with the horrifying reality of her son's mass killing at school. The film offers flashbacks of the complex and troubled relationship between the mother and son but provides no definitive answer as to the cause of the atrocity.

In their review of the film, April Bradley and Erin Olufs discuss a variety of factors that can shed light on such a situation, for example, attachment styles, temperament, parenting, genetics, and parent–child conflict. Which do you believe plays the most significant role? Is it possible that one factor is typically the most dominant, or is it always relative to the particular situation or individual? Although the people responsible for mass killings are the product of both nature and nurture (and their interaction), which factor is most responsible for violent acts? Is there research to justify your position?

Read the Review
ReviewFamily Dynamics and School Violence
By April Bradley and Erin Olufs
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2012 Vol 57(49)


 Thomas Scheff

My guess is that social marginalization plays a crucial part in the motivation of school shooters, along with family dynamics. Rejection by others always leads to overwhelming feelings of shame. If family dynamics has led the person to repress their shame completely, then one of the outcomes can be to hide it behind anger and violence.

My book Bloody Revenge (1994) and subsequent articles are about this.


I believe Mass killings in schools or in any social situation cannot be accredited to one single etiology nor can we draw associations with other similar cases. I support this claim because I believe; these shootings are manifested throughout the years or even during childhood. Whether it is nature or nurture that contributes to such a tragic, I personally thought a lot of emphasis could be focused on interpersonal relationships of the killer.

Parent child interaction during young and even during adulthood is vital in shaping one’s perception of the world as well as how they interact with one another. In Kevin’s situation for example, it is very clear he does not have a very warmth childhood and that these frustrations which cannot be vented out during young, eventually explodes when he gets older and understands he has the ability to do so. Therefore, I believe it could be result of “ repression”. A classic defense mechanism where repression acts to keep the information in the unconscious or just out of awareness (these repressing thoughts do not simply go away or disappear, but they continue to influence our behaviour without the individual knowing).

Lastly, I agree with the blogger above that family dynamics has led to a lot of repression of shame, but I do doubt whether the outcomes are hid behind anger and violence. To a certain extend, I seem to see his actions (acting out) as a way to get the attention he has longed for. So rather than acting violent to hide his repression, I believe Kevin is a case where it is a consequence of a malfunctioning upbringing by his parents as well as being raised in very difficult environment.


Early research has already emphasized the importance of attachment. Further research has also supported these issues, relating how neglectful parents may lead to disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Similar films have portrayed this significance. The film Precious (2009) identified a child who had suffered continuous sexual, verbal and physical abuse by her own parents since a young age. Research found links between reactive aggression and experience of abuse in children. Maladaptive behaviors are often learned as ways to survive in their own environment (e.g. having to live in violent neighborhoods). Some young children may also become defiant in order to seek more attention from their neglectful parents.

Based on the film of Kevin, it was evident that he lived in an unpredictable environment since a young age, beginning with his mother’s postpartum depression. It was further portrayed that his mother continuously had depression throughout the film. Being in this environment, Kevin was not able to experience the motherly love that is crucial for normal and healthy development. Also in the absence of a father figure, this further enhanced his need for a caring figure. Yet, he was constantly deprived of this essential emotion due to his mother’s illness.

Overall, these films emphasize the need for adults to consider their own mental illnesses because it could have devastating results for their child. Although not highly observable in the early years (many may just perceive their child as “naughty”), attachment plays a crucial role for a child to learn socially appropriate behaviors and develop normally.


Both nature and nurture plays important part in developing antisocial behavior. In this film, parenting style and childhood environment was the focus. Kevin mother was suffering from depression starting from her pregnancy . She cannot build a normal relationship with Kevin. Research indicated that mother depression during pregnancy, postpartum depression and later history of depression are all predictive factors of child violence (Hay 2003). Due to her depression, she is not able to provide positive warm environment to Kevin. Research also indicated that parents who give in to the problem of child would encourage problematic behavior (Durand & Barlow, 2013). Obviously both parent of Kevin failed to provide positive guides to Kevin. Kevin's mother drag herself into her depression and anxious mood, was always cold and negative, she often neglect to Kevin's need. On another hand his father blindly believe that Kevin has no problem. This inconsistency also increase the chance of developing antisocial personality. ( Kring & Johnson, 2012). While his family was not healthy, Kevin might inherited the genes of his mother which increase his vulnerability to psychiatric problems. It would not be a single factor which causes the violent behavior of Kevin's problem. Kevin was not an in born evil, he was also one victim of the tragedy.
Kevin perfectly displayed the psychodynamics of antisocial personality. He has great needs for his mother but great anxiety about the consequences of their being present , imperfect or lost. Intimacy with his mother put him in danger of attachment and painful lost. Therefore he chosen to distance himself from his mother and mess up everything in her life (Reid 1985.) Kevin made me reminds of another Japanese film called confession, the boy inside the film actually want to love acceptance of his abusive mother so much and he developed some psychopathic behavior. In my point of view, Kevin also love his mother and want her acceptance so much.
Durand V. Mark & Barlow H. David (2013). Essentials in Abnormal Psychology 6th Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Kring A. M, Johnson S. L., Davison F. C. Neale J. M. (2012). Abnormal psychology 12th edition. John Wiley & Son, Inc
Hay, Dale F.; Pawlby, Susan; Angold, Adrian; Harold, Gordon T.; Sharp, Deborah (2003).Pathways to Violence in the Children of Mothers Who Were Depressed Postpartum.
Developmental Psychology, Vol 39(6).

Reid H. William (1985). The Antisocial Personality: A Review. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, Vol. 36, No. 8, pp 831-837

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

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